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Originally published September 10, 2013 at 12:46 PM | Page modified September 10, 2013 at 4:41 PM

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Congress should take back war power and vote ‘no’ on Syria

Congress should begin taking back the war power by voting “no” on Syria, argues columnist Bruce Ramsey.

Times editorial columnist

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U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., was undecided about an attack on Syria last week. He was reminded of Iraq. To Heck, the invasion of that country was “the worst foreign-policy decision of this generation.”

He wasn’t in Congress then. He is now. It’s his first term and he’s still feeling the awe of the place. The Syria vote weighs on him. “I doubt if I will vote on anything more important in my two years than this,” he says.

The president is of his party. Heck agrees with President Obama that Syria’s internal use of chemical weapons was “abhorrent and a war crime.” But a “yes” vote is a vote, he says, “to take lives.”

I ask him whether a vote by Congress is legally required. I was thinking of the Constitution; he answers in regard to the War Powers Resolution of 1973, passed in the backwash of Vietnam. He says, “I don’t think the War Powers Resolution requires the president to come to Congress.”

I read it differently, but let it pass.

Barack Obama may have set a precedent, Heck suggests, “by saying that the president should come to Congress any time he or she seeks military action when there is not a direct threat to national security.”

America could use a precedent like that. We Americans seem to get into one war after another, and under Democratic presidents as easily as Republican presidents. Exhibit one: Obama in Libya. Exhibit two: Bill Clinton in Serbia during the Kosovo war.

Like Syria, Serbia was never going to attack the United States. It had a government accused of wanton killing of civilians in a civil war. It also had a leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who was needing a lesson from Washington, D.C. On March 23, 1999, the U.S. Senate approved the bombing of Serbia, 58-41.

Clinton started bombing the next day under the auspices of NATO. The vote in the House came more than a month later and tied at 213-213, meaning that the resolution failed and Congress had not authorized the bombing. Nor had the United Nations. Clinton ignored that; he had a point to make, and more than 500 people died.

Now Obama has a point to make. He has proclaimed a red line (no matter who drew it) and he doesn’t want to appear weak. It is understandable, just not respectable.

U.S. presidents have been promiscuous with the war power — in Libya, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Panama, Kuwait, Grenada, on and on. That Obama was elected in 2008 as an anti-war candidate and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t matter. That his secretary of state was an anti-war protester 40 years ago also doesn’t matter.

Power believes in itself. It wants to be used.

Under the Constitution, the power of discretionary war-making is supposed to be in the hands of Congress. If Congress wants to take that power back from the executive, it will have to say “no” somewhere and make it stick. Syria is the chance. It requires leaders with an attitude, the sort I see in Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. And it requires that they have public support.

It also requires that some members like Denny Heck vote against a president of their party. It is difficult to do this. In the Kosovo vote, only one of this state’s Democratic congressmen did, and it wasn’t Jim McDermott.

It was Jay Inslee, now governor.

Now comes the Syria vote. I cheer in advance those who vote “no.”

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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